Oyinkan is a Nigerian writer whose first book, ‘My Sister, The Serial Killer’ will be published by Doubleday in the US in November 2018 and Atlantic in the UK in 2019. A lot seems to be happening quickly for the writer, but it’s been a long journey to this point for her. I’ve watched her take on this (often arduous) journey for years, so I wanted to draw out her thoughts about this pivotal period.
It hasn’t really been a straight path, and Oyinkan describes her work thus: “I’m a freelance writer, which basically means I write for food. I’ve been an editor; I’ve written for online magazines; and I’ve performed spoken word. When things were tough in that area, I gravitated towards website development, book layout, and graphic design.” She has worked in companies in these positions over the past 6 years, but has been freelancing for the past year. If she has learnt anything from her work, it is discipline. “That’s important if you are going to get anything done as a novelist,” she explains. “When I’m writing for work, I can’t afford to wait for inspiration because I have deadlines I have to meet. Inspiration will find me typing on my laptop. So, even with my personal writing, I rarely wait for inspiration.”
On Waiting For A Dream To Come True
Despite writing for a long time and working as a professional writer for 6 years, she only just sold her first book in 2017. I was curious about how she remained tenacious over the years. “When I was eight, I believed that by the time I was 21, I’d have long hair, be a famous writer and be married to a Mr. Rochester/Gilbert type character,” she says. “Needless to say, none of that happened. Seriously though, writing was that thing that was supposed to save me. I knew that was who I was meant to be, but as the years passed by, I began to lose faith.” This is a familiar place for many who have a dream that isn’t bearing fruit already. It’s not unusual to start to lose hope and question yourself and your skills. “At some point, I couldn’t even call myself a writer – I wasn’t writing,” Oyinkan says. “Part of the reason I began to struggle was my move back to Nigeria and the expectations I put on myself – was my story ‘Nigerian’ enough, was my work ‘literary’ enough, were my words ‘deep’?”
Of course, besides the internal struggle, there are often external pressures one deals with. Whether from well meaning friends and family members, or just the everyday realities of bills that need to be paid. There is the pressure to give up on chasing a dream and “join the real world”. How did Oyinkan respond to these? “I’m stubborn and I fought my fear,” she says. “I chose to believe God did not give me this talent so it could destroy me from the inside out. In 2014/2015 I began to write harder and enter competitions. There’s no magic to it; you become a warrior for your dreams. So I suppose it’s this stubbornness and faith that kept me going. I didn’t know when it would happen for me, but I believed it would.”
On Family Drama and Beauty Standards
And happen it did. Her book, described by Deadline as a “darkly comedic story, buzzed-about in publishing circles”, is already making waves months ahead of its release. It has been optioned for film by Working Title, the producers of ‘Baby Driver’. About that, Oyinkan says, “I was pretty blown away by their interest. I’ve spoken to one of the producers and I trust her.” In the wake of Black Panther and the way it did justice to a story set in Africa—yes, I’ve seen it twice and I’m considering doing so again—I asked Oyinkan what she expects from the film interpretation of her book. “They are more serious about doing justice to the narrative than even I am. It’s still early days, so nothing is set in stone. But hopefully…no funny accents.” Amen to that!
The family in Oyinkan’s book is quite a dysfunctional one. One sister is a serial killer, the other covers it up for her grudgingly, and beneath simmers their family drama. It’s a deliciously dark story built on the quiet dysfunction of a Nigerian family. How closely was Oyinkan trying to mirror the average Nigerian family, I asked. “I guess, generally, we deal with a lack of communication between parent and child, we deal with the expectations our parents try to force feed us, we live in an environment that can be harsh and a society that can be duplicitous,” she says. “I’ve always felt as though tempers were bubbling under the surface. It’s really the perfect environment for someone to go a little mad.” It is also tinged by the effects of superficial colonial standards of beauty, about which she says, “It was a theme that was important, maybe the most important to me, in the writing of this novel. I have always believed that there is a certain allowance given to beautiful people, and that the loss of a ‘beautiful’ person rings as slightly more tragic. So, I played with this idea.”
On Writing & Other Forms of Expression
The first of Oyinkan’s stories that I read years ago, ‘Icatha – The Soul Eater’, gave the impression that she grew up on a diet of folklore and books on mythology. It’s not surprising that her response to the question of how she became a storyteller, is “Books”. She was that child reading a book at parties. “Books have made me laugh, they have made me weep. I decided I wanted to make someone out there weep too, and this was the way I would do it. It’s still a goal of mine,” Oyinkan says. “My dad writes folklore stories for children and my mother’s father wrote poetry, so I suppose it’s also in my blood.”
One of the things we first bonded over when we met (and were forced to share an office as editors) was having both studied Law. However, Oyinkan studied Creative Writing and Law, so at first I assumed that she always had her family’s blessing on her writing career choice. “I’m still a Nigerian,” Oyinkan laughs. “My parents have never been unsupportive, but they’ve always sort of argued that writing was something I could do on the side, whilst I was busy being a lawyer. I do enjoy law, but once I graduated I didn’t really look back. After a while, my family was forced to accept that Oyinkan was a special case. I know they were worried about the feasibility of my livelihood, so it’s nice to be able to allay those fears.”
Writing isn’t her only form of expression though. Oyinkan is one of those super-talented but also super determined people, and it’s probably one of the reasons we are friends. When she picked up drawing in 2016, it seemed like play at first. However, she has steadily become better at it, and is proof that it’s never too late to pick up a new form of expression if you’re dedicated. “I like to draw; I find it far more peaceful than writing, probably because I don’t face the same pressure to be ‘good’,” she says. “ Even if I draw nonsense and I’m still proud because it’s better than yesterday’s rubbish. I also like to animate which is hard, but I am learning patience through this medium.”
On Advice and Other Thoughts
When we worked as young (really young) editors at Kachifo, we’d often laugh (or cry) over the quality of majority of submissions. I ask Oyinkan what advice she has for writers still waiting for their big breaks. “I try not to send work out that would cause the reader to question if I completed primary school,” she says. “Many writers don’t like to edit their work…this is not a good thing. Tidy up your work; a writer who doesn’t understand basic grammar cannot inspire confidence.” Beyond that, she says, “Write hard. Challenge yourself. Don’t become comfortable. Try different points of view, different ways of expressing dialogue, work on your description and then write without description, participate in workshops, and attempt prompts. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, the worst you will hear is ‘no’. There is so much untouched material in Nigeria, take advantage of this. There isn’t just one way to write.”
Random thing about Oyinkan: She’s an anime junkie
Apps she can’t do without: Instagram. Bible App.